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Study links gene mutation with sixth sense


Researchers have identified a gene mutation that they claim increases the chances of a person having ‘sixth sense’ or body awareness – a neurological disorder related to touch and proprioception.

Researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) — a US based public research organisation – carried out a study on two young patients – one nine and the other 19-years-old — who were diagnosed with progressive scoliosis — a unique neurological disorder in which a person’s spine has a sideways curve.

Findings revealed a gene called PIEZO2 said to control specific aspects of human touch and proprioception is either directly required for the normal growth and alignment of the skeletal system or that touch and proprioception indirectly guide skeletal development. The study showed that mutation in the PIEZO2 gene was responsible for movement and balance problems in the two patients as well as loss of some forms of touch.

During the course of the study researchers also found that the two patients also lacked body awareness. They could neither feel vibrations from a buzzing tuning fork nor could they tell the difference between one or two small ends of a caliper pressed firmly against their palms. However, the patients could feel other forms of touch including stroking or brushing of hairy skin. However, one claimed it felt prickly instead of the pleasant sensation reported by unaffected volunteers.

In their findings researchers note that the results suggest that patients are touch-blind. The patient’s version of Piezo2 protein may not work, so their neurons cannot detect touch or limb movements. They were able to feel pain, itch, and temperature normally. The nerves in their limbs conducted electricity rapidly and their brains and cognitive abilities were similar to the control subjects of their age.

One important finding was that the nervous system of these patients was compensating for their lack of touch and body awareness. The study suggests the nervous system may have several alternate pathways that we can tap into when designing new therapies.

Previous studies have showed that mutations in PIEZO2 may have various effects on the Piezo2 protein that may result in genetic musculoskeletal disorders, including distal arthrogryposis type 5, Gordon Syndrome, and Marden-Walker Syndrome, the researchers concluded in the paper, published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Researchers say that further studies will help us understand the role of PIEZO2 in these senses and could unravel more secrets behind other neurological disorders.